The Boomerang Effect: National Security, Human Rights and Iran


Weeks have passed since President Donald Trump signed his first Executive Order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US. Heart-wrenching personal stories were quickly forgotten in the United States, as Trump’s Twitter feed and tumult in the White House swept into the news cycle. But those stories did not go overlooked abroad, where the international fallout of these incidents was immediate and long-lasting. The impact in Iran was particularly profound and will mark a setback for U.S. interests and peace-loving people.

Following the signing of Trump’s first Executive Order on immigration, a five-year old Iranian-American boy was reportedly handcuffed and held in custody for more than four hours at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. In an attempt to justify the boy’s detention, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said it would be wrong to assume that just because of someone’s “age and gender” they are not “a threat.” The boy, an American citizen and Maryland resident with the same rights as every other American citizen, happened to be of Iranian descent. His story was one of several accounts of outrageous treatment at airports across the country in the immediate aftermath of the implementation of Trump’s order.

There was also the story of the four-month-old Iranian baby girl, Fatemeh. She was unable to get the rare open-heart surgery that she needed in Iran, so her parents made plans to come to the US. But before she made the trip, she was barred from flying to the United States and her parents were told to reapply for a visa in 90 days, when the gravely ill baby would most likely be dead. This was despite the fact that her uncle and grandparents were U.S. citizens. Finally, after the intervention of several members of Congress, — including one who pleaded Fatemeh “is not a terrorist” — a special waiver was granted for her. She is now recovering well.

Meanwhile, Iranian artists and film stars have also shared their stories of specific effects of the travel ban on them. In protest, Asghar Farhadi, the director of the movie “The Salesman,” which won this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, along with Taraneh Alidoosti, the leading actress in the movie, boycotted the awards ceremony in Los Angeles. Iranian students and scholars at U.S. universities are also dramatically affected. Iran sends over 12,000 students a year to study in the US, more than the other five countries on the revised order’s list combined.

Not surprisingly, these stories were big news in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei seized on the experience of the five-year old saying, “With everything [Trump] is doing—handcuffing a child as young as five at an airport—he is showing the reality of American human rights.” Khamenei went on to say, “We actually thank this new president [Trump]! We thank him, because he made it easier for us to reveal the real face of the United States.” 

Javad Zarif, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the EO a “Muslim Ban, illegal, illogical, and contrary to international law,” and a “clear insult to the Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran; and despite claims of being made to combat terrorism and protecting the people of the United States, it will be recorded in history as a great gift to extremists and their supporters.”

While the stated purpose of Trump’s executive order was to enhance national security, it is clear that it is already doing damage to the U.S. ability to counter the messaging of adversarial leaders and authoritarian regimes abroad. Khamenei was able to portray the treatment of the five-year old boy as an example of human rights abuses committed by the US, thereby eroding America’s authority as a champion for human rights in Iran and elsewhere.

After the progress made by the Obama administration in easing some of the tension with Iran, Trump’s executive order reignited nearly four decades of the Islamic Republic of Iran government officials’ anti-American sentiment. Denouncing the United States has been systematically used as a tool by Iranian leaders, for example, in rising against the Pahlavi Monarchy and its ties with the United States, and in support for Palestinians, and in criticizing Israel and its ally the United States. Years later, Trump’s new policies are giving credence to this line of attacks.

The highly anticipated revised version of the executive order signed by Trump on March 6, revoked the first EO, but despite some significant changes — such as leaving Iraq off the list, and exempting green card and current visa holders from its coverage — the order still bars future Iranian travelers in the same way. Why is Iran included at all since no terrorist incident in the United States since 9/11 has involved an Iranian? Can a country of origin by itself make someone a radical terrorist?

According to a report from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) made public in March, “most foreign-born, US-based violent extremists are likely radicalized after their entry,” and not before entering to the US. In a similar finding by the DHS, in assessing the terrorist threat to the US and worldwide by citizens of the seven countries, the report states “country of citizenship is unlikely to be an indicator of potential terrorist activity.” This report also reveals that the foreign-born, primarily US-based, individuals who were inspired to participate in terrorism-related activities were citizens of 26 different countries.

Even though the legally binding effect of the first order lasted only a few days and the second order has also been halted because of court actions, these measures will have a lasting political impact in Iran. One Iranian response to the White House is to continue barring visas for U.S. citizens traveling to Iran. Travel between the two countries now appears to be severely affected . This will likely lead to a deterioration of the newly established U.S. diplomacy with Iran, which was ushered in by the 2015 landmark nuclear deal between six world powers, including the two countries. Already, within two days after the signing of the first executive order, Iran test fired a medium-range missile, which led to Iran being officially put “on notice” by the Trump administration. This can be seen as another response by Iran to Trump’s order.

Zarif in his defense of Iran’s missile launch, insisted that “we will never, never, never use them against anybody unless in self-defense.” Referring to the Iran-Iraq War, when Iran was attacked by Sadam Hussein and all governments “refused” to give Iran missiles to defend itself, Zarif added but “we make sure that nobody has the guts again to attack us.” This can also be seen as an indication of Iran’s sense of insecurity regarding Trump’s overall attitude toward Iran since campaigning, for example, pledging to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, after calling it a “disaster” and one of the “the worst deals ever negotiated.”

It is noteworthy that Iran is different in some ways from the other five nations included in the revised order. Unlike the others, it is not a failing state or in the midst of civil war on its territory like the other countries, which include Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Iran has also been involved in fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. On the other hand, Iran and Russia are supporting the Assad regime in Syria. Iran also funds Hezbollah and Hamas, groups the US considers foreign terrorists organizations. Iran is one of 14 countries in the world that has a UN Special Rapporteur tasked with evaluating the country’s human rights situation due to its gross human rights violations. Syria, Sudan and Somalia also have their own UN human rights rapporteurs.

Meanwhile, such rapidly increased tension between the US and Iran could be damaging to the implementation of the nuclear deal, to stability of the region, and to the national security interests of the US and its allies.

It will be far more difficult for the Trump administration to hold governments – including Iran — accountable for their gross human rights violations when U.S. moral authority is chipped away by a travel ban that is viewed to embody discrimination against Muslims. On March 8, the National Iranian American Council stated the new order “is still very much a Muslim ban,” and that “President Donald Trump’s new travel ban …will not enhance American security.”

It is important to reflect on such statements alongside the many devastating individual stories we are witnessing since the first order was signed. This Order significantly undermines the work of the Obama administration in the U.N. Human Rights Council and the General Assembly, where the US voted in favor of adopting many sanctions and resolutions against Iran because of its gross human rights violations and its support for terrorist groups. The EO, and the tragic stories that came out of its implementation, can be seen as invaluable resources for the Iranian government to turn the tables and accuse the US of not practicing what it preaches. These stories may be lost in the frenetic American news cycle, but leaders in Iran and elsewhere are seizing on them, as they have in the past, as proof that the US has no moral authority to tell others what to do. It sends our nations further down the path of hostility and marginalizes important voices of moderation inside Iran and elsewhere.

Image: Iranian citizen Ali Vayeghan, who was detained and sent back to Iran after arriving in the US on the day the travel ban was implemented, hugs his niece as he arrives at Los Angeles International Airport on February 2. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


About the Author(s)

Delaram Farzaneh

Scholar in Residence at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law and Author of "Judgeships in Iran: Step Down You Are a Woman, A Legal Analysis of International Human Rights"